Blogs & Comment

Are they competing, or just trying to sell you something?

When competitors just try to get along, it's the consumer who loses.

(Photo: Bernie DeChant/Getty)

Peaceful coexistence isn’t always a good thing. In the marketplace, competition is what drives different producers of a good to improve their wares, and having one producer explain the superiority of his or her product is—embellishment and puffery aside—how consumers learn to differentiate among products. When different suppliers fail to engage in competition, the consumer is left in the dark. Let me give you two examples.

Here’s the first example. One of the problems—or rather, one of the warning signs—about so-called “alternative” medicine is that there are dozens of different kinds of alt-med, all making different and presumably conflicting assumptions about how the human body works, and yet they all get along cozily together. Nowhere do you find homeopaths, for example, explaining why their methods are superior to those of acupuncturists. Nor do you find Reiki therapists dissing Ayurveda. Crystal therapy gurus are unlikely to tell you about the problems with Traditional Chinese Medicine. And so on. As Robert Park wrote, with reference to alt-med, in his book Voodoo Science (p. 65), “there is no internal dissent in a community that feels itself besieged from the outside.” Of course, the existence of different alt-med treatments isn’t in itself surprising or problematic. Mainstream medicine too uses different treatments for different illnesses. But the different treatments offered by mainstream medicine are all, without exception, underpinned by a single coherent body of theory: the heart circulates blood, germs cause infection, physiological effect varies according to drug dosage, and so on.

So the fact that various systems of alternative therapy, underpinned by very different understandings of the human body (and indeed of metaphysics), can get along so chummily is a huge red flag. It suggests that purveyors of alt-med either a) aren’t thinking critically, or b) are more interested in sales than in healing.

Roughly the same concern arises with regard to different perspectives on how businesses should behave. Some will tell you that the obligations of business are rooted in the notion of sustainability, with its indelible environmental overtones. Others will say no, it’s a matter of CSR—Corporate Social Responsibility. Still others say it’s about values. Or leadership. Or citizenship. Or the (ug!) Triple Bottom Line. And each of those seems, at least, to be underpinned by a different understanding of the nature of the firm, its role in society, and what it is that makes an action right or wrong. And yet all kinds of folks seem to want to cleave to all of the above, or to glom onto one of them seemingly at random, as if it doesn’t matter which one you choose.

Again, this should be a big red flag.

I’m sure I’m going to be told that these different schools of thought don’t need to compete with each other—what’s really important, they’ll say, is that, you know, we focus on fixing the way business is done. But again, as with the case of alternative medicines, if someone tries to sell you some and isn’t willing to even try to explain why theirs is better than the other stuff, you should at least wonder whether they aren’t thinking critically, or are merely trying to sell you something.